Putin and the Perm-36 Gulag Monument
by Stephen Schwartz
Perm-36, also known as ITK-6, is the only intact facility remaining in Russia from the Soviet-era gulag system of political prisons and labor camps. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Perm-36 was turned into a Gulag Museum, "to promote democratic values and civic consciousness in contemporary Russia through preservation of the last Soviet political camp as a living reminder of repression and as an important historical and cultural monument."
On August 23, the English-language website "Russia Behind the Headlines" reported that Perm-36 is no longer open, and that its directors, Tatyana Kursina and Viktor Shmirov, had been fired. The pair was replaced, according to the website, by "an official from the Perm Ministry of Culture, Natalya Semakova, who had had no prior relationship to the museum. In July, after a series of unsuccessful attempts to restore the status quo, the non-governmental organization Perm-36 officially announced its termination of cooperation with the museum. It is currently preparing to collect all of its property – literally all of the museum's collections. It is unclear what will be displayed in their place at the museum."
"Russia Behind the Headlines" is run by the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russian Gazette). Rossiyskaya Gazeta identifies itself on its own website as an official publication, "founded by the government of the Russian Federation."
According to the State Department, which donated $28,060 in 2005-06 for the maintenance of Perm-36, the location is a complex of wooden structures built by prisoners in 1946. Money for its conservation was granted through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program established in 2001 under president George W. Bush.
Perm-36 has been administered since 1994 by "Memorial," a leading Russian civil society group, which records the crimes of the Soviet regime and monitors human rights violations in various post-Soviet countries. "Memorial" has erected gravestones and other markers to gulag victims in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
As described by texts posted at the museum in Perm-36, the camp is situated near the central Russian city of Perm, in the Ural Mountain forests close to the Siberian frontier. The same source notes that in the late 1940s the Perm region included more than 150 such installations, with 150,000 prisoners, comprising a third of the local workforce.
Perm-36 includes four barracks, each for 250 prisoners, a separate punishment stockade, a hospital, and a headquarters. Prisoners at Perm-36 were awakened at six each morning and worked until "lights out" at 11 each night. A march from the camp to the woods took one-and-a-half hours each way, under armed guard.
In 2006, the Perm-36 Gulag Museum and the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) cooperated on an exhibit that traveled from Washington around America, "GULAG: Soviet Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom." The Museum and NPS were joined in sponsorship of the tour by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard.
Vladimir Putin's Russia, however, has little incentive to continue acknowledging the atrocities committed by Soviet rulers against their citizens. In June 2014, Ola Cichowlas, a blogger on Russian affairs who had worked in the Perm branch of "Memorial," warned in the New Republic that with the onset of its aggression against Ukraine, the Putin regime was harassing the organization and intended to shut down Perm-36. Cichowlas argued that while a State Museum of Gulag History had been established in Moscow in 2001, it addressed only the Stalinist terror. "Perm-36," in Cichowlas's words, "is the only former labor camp that immortalizes the lives of political dissidents throughout the entire Soviet era."
Germany has, predictably, gone much further in documenting the crimes of communism in its former Soviet-occupied Eastern zone. At the beginning of August, the Berlin-based Federal Foundation for Research on the East German Dictatorship sent an open letter to Putin and relevant authorities in Perm. The foundation announced, "with sorrow and outrage," the circulation of a petition protesting against the closure of Perm-36 and dismissal of its staff. Calling for the reinstatement of museum director Kursina, the petition had collected more than 65,000 signatures by August 23.
The German foundation declared that the existence of the Perm-36 museum is a "symbol that the Russian Federation supports historical memory based on civil society, without state repression, and that the Russian leadership supports a review of the totalitarian past without distortions or censorship."
"Russia Behind the Headlines" suggested that Perm-36 was shut down because "the regional government has withdrawn funding for various initiatives" and "in 2012, cultural and educational projects began to be curtailed." But the site also commented, "Public opinion about the Stalinist repressions has radically changed since the perestroika era. . . . This trend, which is taking on a mass character, appears to be opposed by few."
Neo-Stalinism is becoming the undisguised ideology of Putin and his supporters. In its commentary on Perm-36 and its future, "Russia Behind the Headlines" noted casually that "According to the famous human rights defender Sergei Kovalyov, who was imprisoned in this camp, the authorities began sending so-called "political" prisoners—nationalists from the Baltic republics and Ukraine, along with Moscow dissidents—[there] in the early 1970s."
As a reminder of Russia's past injustices, the existence of the Perm-36 Museum in its original form may therefore be relevant to Ukrainians and other opponents of Muscovite imperialism no less than to Russians.
The controversy over Perm-36 comes amid new details about the advance of Putin's scheme to undermine Ukraine. On August 15, Roman Olearchyk of the Financial Times reported that the former leaders of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic," the Putinite "state" in eastern Ukraine, Igor Girkin (known as "Strelkov" or "Shooter") and Aleksandr Borodai, "admit to defending Russia's interests in past regional conflicts, including the Balkans." On August 23, the same newspaper described the training of 5,000 Russian "peacekeepers" for service in Ukraine. These personnel were selected from the elite paratroops, known by their Russian initials as the VDV, that "secured" the airport in Kosova, in 1999, "preempting NATO deployment there and resulting in a stand-off with the alliance."
Faced with Putin's aggressive maneuvers, both outside and within Russia's borders, the German historians have taken a worthy initiative in advocating for the continuation of the Perm-36 Museum. Having contributed to the gulag museum's financing, the U.S. government should join in the effort to keep the most relevant chapters in Russia's history alive.